I live in Raleigh, NC. One of the best public parks on the planet¹ is in Raleigh, NC—Dorthea Dix City Park.
One thing about this park that makes it so great is that it offers multiple different views of the skyline of downtown Raleigh. It may not be a big skyline, but it sure is pretty.
Large buildings have always fascinated me. And not just the office buildings of the modern day skyline, but massive cathedrals in the old cities, and big lighthouses on the coasts. The architecture of them is impressive for sure, but what I really am drawn to is the motivation behind their construction. Why build these huge structures? It surely isn’t just for their utility. There is something special going on here.
In one of the early chapters of the Bible, there is this fascinating story about a group of humans who decide to build a big building. You may or may not be familiar with the story. It is most commonly known as the story of the Tower of Babel.
The story goes that all of the human race at this point in time lived together and spoke the same language. They migrated to a certain area of land and they started developing a new technology – brick making. These bricks were far superior to the old-fashioned way of construction that involved simply piling stones on top of each other.
So with the advent of masonry, these people decided that they wanted to build a great city. And in that city, they would build a massive tower that reached all the way up into the heavens.
But, again, why? The interesting question is the motivation.
What reason did humanity have to invest the time and energy to construct such a building?
The Scriptures tell us their reasoning was, “So that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”
A name for ourselves.
You see, at the time a name was much more than just a label that someone had so as to be able to distinguish one from another. In the ancient world, and we see this throughout the Biblical narrative, a person’s name was a signifier of their identity.
If a person was uniquely skilled at something, their name would convey that.
If a person had a specific job or role in society, their name would convey that.
If a person came from a particularly important family or bloodline, their name would convey that.
Names meant something.
Now, at first glance, this may seem a little foreign to us in today’s day and age. But is it?
Consider some of these names:
Even today, names mean something.
And some names carry more weight than others.
We will go to great lengths, and spend absurd amounts of money just so that we can have the right named socks. Or the right named jeans.
But it doesn’t just have to be clothes, does it? We feel that we simply must have the right named car. Or have the right named phone. Or work for the right named company. Or go to the right named school.
Even things that don’t technically have names. We have to earn the right amount of money. We have to have the right group of friends. We have to have the right amount of sex.
We are terrified that we will be scattered across the face of the whole earth.
We spend every ounce of energy that we have trying to make a name for ourselves. We try to prove that we matter; that we have some measure of relevance on this rock of a planet. We show off our brick making skills for all the world to see because we are horrified by the alternative.
It kinda feels like our society is at a monumental turning point. Everything around us, from our American media culture to the systems of economic and governmental power, is telling me and you that the purpose of our individual lives is to go out and make a name for ourselves.
That. Is. A. Lie.
Because what’s really interesting about all of this is that if you look back to the very beginning of creation when God first made humans, there were no names. In fact, Adam is not the name of the first man that God created. Adam is the Hebrew word that means “the man,” or maybe more accurately “the human.” And the woman was not named Eve until after she and the man ate the forbidden fruit.
So God created the man and the woman, and they had no names. And when God created them, He saw that they were “very good.”
God gave the man and woman the responsibility to serve and to protect all of creation, but their very goodness didn’t depend on their utility as servants or caretakers. They were very good because…they were.
Maybe this is why the Scripture says that the man and woman were naked, and they felt no shame.
When your worth as a person doesn’t depend on what you are or are not good at,
when your worth as a person doesn’t depend on what you have or have not accomplished,
when your worth as a person doesn’t depend on what you are or are not wearing;
when your worth doesn’t depend on anything other than the fact that you are breathing and were created in the Image of God, what is there to be ashamed of?
You are very good. Period.
So the people of Babel begin construction on this monumental tower, and God comes to take a look. God says “if as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them.”
Now, the Hebrew word here for “plan” actually suggests a more sinister agenda than simply choosing where to go on vacation. Another possible translation could be “nothing they scheme up will be impossible for them.”
So towards the purpose of making a name for themselves, humanity decides to display its technological prowess by building a tower; a monument to the Self. There’s nothing inherently wrong with a tower; but the question is, what comes after the tower?
When the novelty of the building wears off, what else can humanity come up with to make sure people know our name? To what lengths will I go to prove my value?
I wonder if we were to look back at the things we have done in order to “make a name for ourselves,” would we like what we see? Would we be proud of what we have done? If given a second chance, would we do it the same way? Would we decide to build the tower?
Ultimately, God does the one thing that the people were terrified of happening in the first place; he scatters them across the face of the whole earth.
All of their energy, all of their passion and devotion, all of their strength was driven by their fear. The fear of being tossed aside; scattered across the earth. And in the end, they are scattered anyway.
I wonder if sometimes the one place we are so afraid of ending up is exactly where we need to be. Maybe it’s then that we’re finally open to listening to God.
And it’s in the aftermath of God scattering the people of Babel—the very next story in the Bible, in fact—that God calls out to one of these scattered, isolated individuals. A man called Abram.
God calls Abram out of his obscurity and says,
“Go from your country…to the land I will show you.
I will make you into a great nation,
and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
and you will be a blessing.”
Did you catch that?
God will make Abram’s name great.
Not Abram. God.
Abram’s job is to bless others.
Like the man and woman at the beginning, Abram is called out of obscurity to serve and protect—to bless—all of creation. Not himself, but the world.
Maybe this is what Jesus was getting at when he said, “Whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for my sake and for the sake of the Good News will save it. After all, what good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet lose their soul?”
What would happen if instead of dedicating our entire lives trying to make a name for ourselves, we dedicated it to making a name for others? All of our technology, and skills, and expertise, and education, and careers, and passion, and energy, and devotion, and love. Our entire lives used for the sake of the world.
That sounds almost like God’s will being done on Earth as it is in Heaven.
May it be so in your life.
¹ This may be a subjective distinction…but probably not.